A DOL Audit Can Happen to You | North Carolina Benefit Advisors

Summary plan descriptions (SPDs) are required for all retirement, health, and welfare plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). However, misconceptions about this requirement are widespread. ERISA attorney Stacy H. Barrow, partner with Marathas Barrow Weatherhead Lent LLP, had a chat with ThinkHR about the importance of having proper ERISA documentation and the consequences of failing to do so.

THR: What types of employers need to have an SPD?

SHB: We tell all employers — of any size — who offer plans subject to ERISA that they need to have an SPD. This is the first item in every Department of Labor (DOL) audit. If you don’t have one and you get audited or a participant asks for plan documents, you will be scrambling to put documents together and you can’t do them fast enough to avoid an issue. In addition, cafeteria plans can only be adopted prospectively, so if you don’t have a written cafeteria plan in place, you may be jeopardizing the tax qualified status of your plan.

THR: Won’t my broker or carrier take care of these documents?

SHB: Employers may think that brokers or carriers take care of all required benefits documentation, but at the end of the day, it’s the employer who is responsible for complying with ERISA’s SPD requirement. Your broker may help you, but they might not be aware of every benefit you offer or your eligibility guidelines. The carrier’s documentation often is missing some of the required language, which is why you use a wrap. You don’t specifically have to use a wrap to develop your SPD, but the carrier document won’t get you there and an wrap is often the best way to comply. If the plan documents aren’t compliant, that’s not the carrier’s or broker’s responsibility, it’s the employer’s.

THR: Do I really need to be concerned about a DOL audit?

SHB: Employers can get complacent about documentation, thinking that only large employers get audited, or it won’t happen to them. It’s not only the large corporations that get audited. It can happen to employers of any size or type. It’s important to make sure you have good benefits documentation, because if you don’t, and you do get audited, it might cause the DOL to dig deeper and look for other problems, such as looking into your 401(k) plan.

Plan documentation is a huge part of every DOL audit. I can’t stress strongly enough that they will want to see the summary plan description and plan documents. If you can get good, compliant documents to the DOL, it increases the chances of a speedy resolution. If you can provide them quickly, it sends a message that you are ready and in compliance.

THR: What are the consequences of being out of compliance?

SHB: Not having the proper documents may be an issue if you get audited or there is litigation over a denied claim. You need to be prepared for this possibility. If the DOL audits and imposes penalties, it may not be because the employer didn’t have a wrap document, but rather because the document wasn’t updated, wasn’t compliant, or wasn’t distributed to employees. And the DOL may impose penalties of up to $152 per day for failure to provide an SPD upon request. Also, failure to inform participants of plan changes may invalidate those changes.

Originally published by www.thinkhr.com


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6 Ways to Keep the Flu from Sidelining Your Workplace North Carolina Benefit Advisors

This year’s flu season is a rough one. Although the predominant strains of this year’s influenza viruses were represented in the vaccine, they mutated, which decreased the effectiveness of the immunization. The flu then spread widely and quickly, and in addition, the symptoms were severe and deadly. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the 2017 – 2018 flu season established new records for the percentage of outpatient visits related to flu symptoms and number of flu hospitalizations.

Younger, healthy adults were hit harder than is typical, which had impacts on the workplace. In fact, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. recently revised its estimates on the impact of this flu season on employers, raising the cost of lost productivity to over $21 billion, with roughly 25 million workers falling ill.

Fortunately, the CDC is reporting that it looks like this season is starting to peak, and while rates of infection are still high in most of the country, they are no longer rising and should start to drop. What can you do as an employer to keep your business running smoothly for the rest of this flu season and throughout the next one?

  1. Help sick employees stay home. Consider that sick employees worried about their pay, unfinished projects and deadlines, or compliance with the company attendance policy may feel they need to come to work even if they are sick. Do what you can to be compassionate and encourage them to stay home so they can get better as well as protect their co-workers from infection. In addition, make sure your sick leave policies are compliant with all local and state laws, and communicate them to your employees. Be clear with the expectation that sick employees not to report to work. For employees who feel well enough to work but may still be contagious, encourage them to work remotely if their job duties will allow. Be consistent in your application of your attendance and remote work rules.
  2. Know the law. Although the flu is generally not serious enough to require leaves of absence beyond what sick leave or PTO allow for, in a severe season, employees may need additional time off. Consider how the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), state leave laws, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may come into play for employees who have severe cases of the flu, complications, or family members who need care.
  3. Be flexible. During acute flu outbreaks, schools or daycare facilities may close, leaving parents without childcare. Employees may also need to be away from the workplace to provide care to sick children, partners, or parents. Examine your policies to see where you can provide flexibility. Look for opportunities to cross-train employees on each other’s essential duties so their work can continue while they are out.
  4. Keep it clean. Direct cleaning crews to thoroughly disinfect high-touch areas such as doorknobs, kitchen areas, and bathrooms nightly. Provide hand sanitizer in common areas and encourage frequent handwashing. Keep disinfecting wipes handy for staff to clean their personal work areas with.
  5. Limit exposure. Avoid non-essential in-person meetings and travel that can expose employees to the flu virus. Rely on technology such as video conferencing, Slack, Skype, or other platforms to bring people together virtually. Consider staggering work shifts if possible to limit the number of people in the workplace at one time.
  6. Focus on wellness. Offer free or low-cost flu shots in the workplace. If your company provides snacks or meals for employees, offer healthier options packed with nutrients.

Originally published by www.thinkhr.com


Benefits of an Annual Exam | North Carolina Employee Benefits

Have you ever heard the proverb "Knowledge is power?" It means that knowledge is more powerful than just physical strength and with knowledge people can produce powerful results. This applies to your annual medical physical as well!

The #1 goal of your annual exam is to GAIN KNOWLEDGE. Annual exams offer you and your doctor a baseline for your health as well as being key to detecting early signs of diseases and conditions.

The #1 goal of your annual exam is to


 According to Malcom Thalor, MD, "A good general exam should include a comprehensive medical history, family history, lifestyle review, problem-focused physical exam, appropriate screening and diagnostic tests and vaccinations, with time for discussion, assessment and education. And a good health care provider will always focus first and foremost on your health goals."

Early detection of chronic diseases can save both your personal pocketbook as well as your life! By scheduling AND attending your annual physical, you are able to cut down on medical costs of undiagnosed conditions. Catching a disease early means you are able to attack it early. If you wait until you are exhibiting symptoms or have been symptomatic for a long while, then the disease may be to a stage that is costly to treat. Early detection gives you a jump start on treatments and can reduce your out of pocket expenses.

When you are prepared to speak with your Primary Care Physician (PCP), you can set the agenda for your appointment so that you get all your questions answered as well as your PCP's questions. Here are some tips for a successful annual physical exam:

·       Bring a list of medications you are currently taking—You may even take pictures of the bottles so they can see the strength and how many.

·      Have a list of any symptoms you are having ready to discuss.

·      Bring the results of any relevant surgeries, tests, and medical procedures

·      Share a list of the names and numbers of your other doctors that you see on a regular basis.

·      If you have an implanted device (insulin pump, spinal cord stimulator, etc) bring the device card with you.

·      Bring a list of questions! Doctors want well informed patients leaving their office. Here are some sample questions you may want to ask:

o   What vaccines do I need?

o   What health screenings do I need?

o   What lifestyle changes do I need to make?

o   Am I on the right medications?

Becoming a well-informed patient who follows through on going to their annual exam as well as follows the advice given to them from their physician after asking good questions, will not only save your budget, but it can save your life!

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Benefits Easy: Intro to Self-Funding | North Carolina Employee Benefits

As the first month of 2018 wraps up, companies have already begun the arduous task of submitting budgets and finding ways to cut costs for the new year. One of the most effective ways to combat increasing health care costs for companies is to move to a Self-Funded insurance plan. By paying for claims out-of-pocket instead of paying a premium to an insurance carrier, companies can save around 20% in administration costs and state taxes. That's quite a cost savings!

The topic of Self-Funding is huge and so we want to break it down into smaller bites for you to digest. This month we want to tackle a basic introduction to Self-Funding and in the coming months, we will cover the benefits, risks, and the stop-loss associated with this type of plan.


·       When the employer assumes the financial risk for providing health care benefits to its employees, this is called Self-Funding.

·       Self-Funded plans allow the employer to tailor the benefits plan design to best suit their employees. Employers can look at the demographics of their workforce and decide which benefits would be most utilized as well as cut benefits that are forecasted to be underutilized.

·       While previously most used by large companies, small and mid-sized companies, even with as few as 25 employees, are seeing cost benefits to moving to Self-Funded insurance plans.

·       Companies pay no state premium taxes on self-funded expenditures. This savings is around 1.5% - 3/5% depending on in which state the company operates.

·       Since employers are paying for claims, they have access to claims data. While keeping within HIPAA privacy guidelines, the employer can identify and reach out to employees with certain at-risk conditions (diabetes, heart disease, stroke) and offer assistance with combating these health concerns. This also allows greater population-wide health intervention like weight loss programs and smoking cessation assistance.

·       Companies typically hire third-party administrators (TPA) to help design and administer the insurance plans. This allows greater control of the plan benefits and claims payments for the company.

As you can see, Self-Funding has many facets. It's important to gather as much information as you can and weigh the benefits and risks of moving from a Fully-Funded plan for your company to a Self-Funded one. Doing your research and making the move to a Self-Funded plan could help you gain greater control over your healthcare costs and allow you to design an original plan that best fits your employees.

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Federal Employment Law Update – January 2018 | North Carolina Employee Benefits

WHD Revises Test for Unpaid Internships

On January 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) released a Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB No. 2018-2) establishing that the primary beneficiary test, rather than the six-point test, will determine whether interns at for-profit employers are employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The primary beneficiary test requires an examination of the economic reality of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. The following seven factors are part of this test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee — and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job after the internship.

According to the WHD, under the primary beneficiary test, no one factor is dispositive and every factor is not required to be fulfilled to conclude that the intern is not an employee entitled to the minimum wage. The primary beneficiary test is a distinct shift in analysis because per the six-part test every intern and trainee would be an employee under the FLSA unless his or her job satisfied each of six independent criteria. Courts have held that the primary beneficiary test is an inherently “flexible” test and whether an intern or trainee is an employee under the FLSA necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case.

The WHD announced it will conform to the federal court of appeals’ determinations and use the same court-adopted test to determine whether interns or students are employees under the FLSA.

Read the field bulletin

Increased Penalties for Federal Violations

On January 2, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced in the Federal Register that penalties for violations of the following federal laws have increased for 2018:

  • Black Lung Benefits Act.
  • Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act.
  • Employee Polygraph Protection Act.
  • Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (child labor and home worker).
  • Family and Medical Leave Act.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act.
  • Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act.
  • Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act.

These increases are due to the requirements of the Inflation Adjustment Act, which requires the DOL to annually adjust its civil money penalty levels for inflation by no later than January 15.

These increased rates are effective January 2, 2018.

Read the Federal Register

OSHA Penalties Increased

On January 2, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor announced in the Federal Register that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) penalties will increase for 2018 as follows:

  • Other-than-Serious: $12,934
  • Serious: $12,934
  • Repeat: $129,336
  • Willful: $129,336
  • Posting Requirement Violation: $12,934
  • Failure to Abate: $12,934

These increases apply to states with federal OSHA programs; rates for states with OSHA-approved State Plans will increase to these amounts as well; State Plans are required to increase their penalties in alignment with OSHA’s to maintain at least as effective penalty levels.

These new penalty increases are effective as of January 2, 2018 and apply to any citations issued on that day and thereafter.

Read the Federal Register

Agencies Release Advance Copies of Form 5500 for Filing in 2018

The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) released the advance informational copies of the 2017 Form 5500 and related instructions. For small employee benefit plan reports, advance short form copies of 2017 Form 5500-Short Form (SF) and 2017 Instructions for Form 5500-SF were also released with supplemental materials including schedules and attachments.

Read about and download the Form 5500 Series


Originally published by www.thinkhr.com


Oral Health = Overall Health

Have you heard the saying “the eyes are the window to your soul”? Well, did you know that your mouth is the window into what is going on with the rest of your body? Poor dental health contributes to major systemic health problems. Conversely, good dental hygiene can help improve your overall health.  As a bonus, maintaining good oral health can even REDUCE your healthcare costs!

Researchers have shown us that there is a close-knit relationship between oral health and overall wellness. With over 500 types of bacteria in your mouth, it’s no surprise that when even one of those types of bacteria enter your bloodstream that a problem can arise in your body. Oral bacteria can contribute to:

1.     Endocarditis---This infection of the inner lining of the heart can be caused by bacteria that started in your mouth.

2.     Cardiovascular Disease---Heart disease as well as clogged arteries and even stroke can be traced back to oral bacteria.

3.     Low birth weight---Poor oral health has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight of newborns.

The healthcare costs for the diseases and conditions, like the ones listed above, can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Untreated oral diseases can result in the need for costly emergency room visits, hospital stays, and medications, not to mention loss of work time. The pain and discomfort from infected teeth and gums can lead to poor productivity in the workplace, and even loss of income. Children with poor oral health miss school, are more prone to illness, and may require a parent to stay home from work to care for them and take them to costly dental appointments.

So, how do you prevent this nightmare of pain, disease, and increased healthcare costs? It’s simple! By following through with your routine yearly dental check ups and daily preventative care you will give your body a big boost in its general health. Check out these tips for a healthy mouth:

·       Maintain a regular brushing/flossing routine---Brush and floss teeth twice daily to remove food and plaque from your teeth, and in between your teeth where bacteria thrive.

·       Use the right toothbrush---When your bristles are mashed and bent, you aren’t using the best instrument for cleaning your teeth. Make sure to buy a new toothbrush every three months. If you have braces, get a toothbrush that can easily clean around the brackets on your teeth.

·       Visit your dentist---Depending on your healthcare plan, visit your dentist for a check-up at least once a year. He/she will be able to look into that window to your body and keep your mouth clear of bacteria. Your dentist will also be able to alert you to problems they see as a possible warning sign to other health issues, like diabetes, that have a major impact on your overall health and healthcare costs.

·       Eat a healthy diet---Staying away from sugary foods and drinks will prevent cavities and tooth decay from the acids produced when bacteria in your mouth comes in contact with sugar. Starches have a similar effect. Eating healthy will reduce your out of pocket costs of fillings, having decayed teeth pulled, and will keep you from the increased health costs of diabetes, obesity-related diseases, and other chronic conditions.

There’s truth in the saying “take care of your teeth and they will take care of you”.  By instilling some of the these tips for a healthier mouth, not only will your gums and teeth be thanking you, but you may just be adding years to your life.  

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Tax Reform: What It Means for Employee Benefit Plans

December 18th, 2017

Late Friday, the public got its first look at the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The 500-plus page bill is the product of separate House and Senate bills that were reconciled in conference. Congressional Republicans appear to have sufficient votes to pass the reconciled bill in both chambers and deliver it to President Trump’s desk this week.

If signed into law, the bill will make significant changes in the Internal Revenue Code with respect to corporations, businesses, and individuals. There also are a small number of provisions that will affect employee benefit plans. This article outlines the items of particular interest to employers that sponsor health and welfare benefits or retirement and savings plans.

Health and Welfare Benefits

Group health benefits, often considered the primary and most valuable benefit provided by employers, are not affected by the bill. Requirements that were added several years ago by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the so-called employer mandate and employer reporting requirements, will continue to apply. There also are no changes with respect to health flexible spending accounts (HFSAs), health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs), or health savings accounts (HSAs).

Current tax laws for group life and accident insurance and short- and long-term disability benefits also continue unchanged.

The original House bill would have affected the preferred tax treatment of adoption assistance benefits and educational assistance plans. The final bill, however, preserves the current treatment.

Dependent care assistance plans, including dependent FSAs, also escaped changes in the final bill. For individual income tax purposes, the federal child care tax credit will be expanded somewhat, so some employees will want to take another look at whether their employer’s FSA, or the federal credit, will offer the greater benefit.

Qualified transportation benefits, often referred to as commuter benefits, are affected by the new bill. For tax years 2018 through 2025, the bill repeals current law that allows employees to exclude bicycle commuting expenses from their gross income. Employees will continue to be able to exclude qualified parking and transit benefits from their income, but employers will lose the ability to deduct their costs for these benefits.

Retirement and Savings Programs

While early House proposals targeted retirement plan contribution limits, employer-sponsored retirement plans were generally unscathed in conference. Therefore, in 2018 employee contributions to 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan remain capped at $18,500 ($24,500 for those age 50 or older). Roth and Traditional IRA limits in 2018 are capped at $5,500 ($6,500 for those age 50 or older).

The most notable change for tax favored employer-sponsored retirement plans relates to loan offsets. Under current law, if an employee receives a loan from the retirement plan and either the plan terminates or the employee terminates employment, then the employee’s obligation to repay the loan is accelerated and the employee must either repay the outstanding balance on the loan or roll the outstanding balance into another eligible retirement plan within 60 days to avoid tax liability for loan offset.

Under the bill, if the plan terminates or an employee fails to meet the repayment terms of the loan because they sever employment, then time period within which a loan offset can be rolled over tax-free to another eligible retirement plan is extended from 60 days to the employee’s due date (including extensions) for filing federal income taxes for the tax year in which the plan loan offset occurs. This provision takes effect for plan loan offset amounts treated as distributed in taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017.

Additionally, the tax plan provides more relief for employees impacted by natural disasters occurring in the 2016 or 2017 tax years. The natural disaster had to occur in an area declared as a disaster area by the president and the casualty damage (exceeding $500) must have resulted from that disaster. In such cases, employees who received a distribution from their eligible retirement plan (including a 401(k) plan, 457(b) plan or an IRA) may recontribute the funds to an eligible retirement plan to which a rollover can be made within three years after the date on which the distribution was received to avoid the money being included as income.

For this to apply to employees, employers will need to make retroactive plan amendments on or before the last day of the first plan year beginning after December 31, 2018 (December 31, 2020 for governmental plans) or a later date prescribed by the Secretary of the Treasury. The amendment is retroactively effective if it applies retroactively for the applicable period and the plan is operated in accordance with the amendment during that period. Therefore, amendments should reflect their operations during that time period. Employers are encouraged to work with employee benefits counsel to address any retroactive plan amendments.


Although early versions of tax reform bills would have affected several types of employee benefits, the final bill makes very few changes and those changes are fairly modest. Employers and their advisors will want to pay particular attention to issues affecting commuter benefits, loan provisions under 401(k) and similar plans, and tax relief for retirement/savings plan participants who were impacted by natural disasters in the past two years.

Originally published by www.thinkhr.com


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Utilize FSA Monies with Key Year–End Strategies

‘Tis the Season’. Like most, you‘re probably in the midst of the “hustle and bustle” of this holiday season with dinners, parties, and activities; Christmas shopping; and spending those remaining FSA dollars you have allocated this year.  

Wait, what? Yes, you read right. Chances are, if you’ve opted to utilize an employer-sponsored FSA account in 2017, you may have remaining funds you’ll need to spend. This is especially true if your employer opted for the $500 carryover rule in lieu of a grace period. Regardless of what flexible spending account you have, here are some strategies to get the most out of this benefit before year end.

Medical Care

Medical FSAs are the most common supplemental flexible coverage offered under employer benefit plans. If you’ve elected this coverage for 2017, here are a few things to consider when spending these funds.

Routine and Elective Medical Procedures

Whether routine or not, now’s the time to get appointments booked. If your employer offers a grace period for turning in receipts, you can book appointments into the first couple of months of the New Year and get reimbursed from this year’s funds without affecting 2018’s contributions. This has a two-fold advantage, as you can also spread next year’s deductible over the coming year.  

Several routine and elective procedures that are FSA-eligible include:

·        Lasik

·        Sleep Apnea/Snoring

·        Hernia surgery

·        Colonoscopy

·        Smoking/Weight Loss Cessation Programs

Alternative Therapies

Under IRS law, certain alternative therapies are eligible for reimbursement. Acupuncture and chiropractic care, alternative medicinal treatments, and herbal supplements and remedies are a great way to use up your funds for the year and get a little cash back when you most need it.


Dental benefits often work differently than medical coverage. According to the American Dental Association, this benefit is often capped annually – generally between $1,000 and $3,000.  If you have unused funds remaining in your FSA, now may be the time to schedule a last-minute appointment with your dentist, especially if you might need serious work down the road. This way, you can use up the funds remaining in your account by year-end, and reduce your out-of-pocket expense next year by sharing the cost of additional dental services over a longer period of time.

Prescription Refills

Refilling your prescription medications at year end are a great way to use up your funds in your medical FSA. Take inventory of your prescription drugs, toss out expired ones, and make that call for a refill to your doctor or pharmacy.

Over the Counter Drugs, Medical Equipment and Supplies

Many OTC medications, medical equipment and supplies are eligible for reimbursement under a medical FSA. First-aid kits, blood-pressure monitors, thermometers, and joint braces are just a few.  Please note that some will require a note or prescription from your doctor.

Mileage and Other Healthcare-Related Extras

Traveling to and from any medical facility for appointments or treatment are eligible for reimbursement under your FSA. This not only includes traveling by your own vehicle, but also by bus, train, plane, ambulance service; and does include parking fees and tolls.

In addition, you can get reimbursed for other health-related expenses. These include:

·        Lodging and meals during a medical event.

·        Medical conferences concerning an illness of you or one of your dependents.

·        Advance Payments on a retirement home or long-term care.

Dependent Care

If you have opted to contribute to a DCFSA, you can get reimbursed for day care, preschool, summer camps and non-employer sponsored before and after school programs. In addition, funds contributed to this type of FSA can be used for elderly daycare if you’re covering more than 50% your parent’s maintenance costs.

Adoption Assistance

If you are contributing to an Adoption Assistance FSA offered by your employer, you can get reimbursed for any expenses incurred in the process of legally adopting an eligible child.  Eligible expenses include adoption fees, attorney fees and court costs, medical expenses for a child prior to being placed for adoption, and related travel costs in association with the adoption process.

Make the most out of your FSA contributions by using the above strategies to your advantage as we close out 2017. As you move into 2018, review the maximum contribution guidelines for the coming year as set by the IRS, and establish a game plan on expenditures next year. Seek your HR department’s expertise for guidelines and tips they can give you to maximize this valuable benefit package.

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Fitness Incentive Program Ideas

Corporate fitness programs not only build camaraderie and morale, they can improve company bottom lines considerably. Improved worker health results in lower absenteeism, improved productivity, decreased health care costs and fewer lawsuits, according to the Wellness Council of America. Incentives and contests can help your company increase employee participation in wellness programs.


A corporate fitness program improves employee health in several ways. Workers lose weight, reduce stress, lower blood pressure and sleep better. All of these can reduce sick days, doctor visit and workplace injuries. For example, lower-back injuries cause employees to miss 100 million work days annually, according to the Wellness Council of America. The DuPont corporation decreased disability days at its Tennessee plant by 14 percent after instituting a wellness program, saving almost $120,000 annually.


While employee education is an important part of any corporate wellness program, a fitness incentive program motivates employees to participate. Holding a team competition or offering cash or other prizes can create a buzz throughout your workplace and get more employees participating.

Team Competitions

One way to increase fitness program participation is to create a team contest. You can draw names at random to create teams, pit management against staff, place workers from different departments on teams to create more interaction or have different offices face off against each other.

Weight-loss Challenge

Weight loss is one aspect of fitness that concerns or interests many people. Create a weight-loss challenge as either an individual contest or team competition. You can award a prize or prizes based on total number of pounds lost or percentage of individual or team weight lost.

Fitness Challenge

If you don't want to focus on weight loss only, have a broader fitness competition. Track total number of verifiable hours participants exercised during the competition period, how much each person or team lowered their cholesterol or a fitness challenge, with participants or teams competing in tests such as number of sit-ups and push-ups, minutes on a treadmill or jumping rope, timed laps swum or other measurements. Work with a fitness professional and your insurance company to create a test that is safe for all participants.


You can use a variety of incentives to motivate employees to participate in a fitness program. You can award cash prizes, trips, gift certificates, extra vacation days or other tangible rewards. You can add prestige with winners names on plaques displayed at headquarters, a mention in the company newsletter and press releases sent to local papers. With team events, the winning team might get to name the charity that receives a donation from the company. Whenever you award prizes, make sure the rules are clear, the judging criteria are objective and that all employees are eligible -- if you set up a contest for one department or employees with more than one year's service, you may create ill will among other employees.

Originally published by www.livestrong.com


The Perks of Holiday Parties: How They’re Still an Asset to Your Company

The end of the year is upon us and a majority of companies celebrate with an end-of-year/holiday party.  Although the trend of holiday parties has diminished in recent years, it’s still a good idea to commemorate the year with an office perk like a fun, festive party. 


  • Holiday staff parties are a perfect way to thank your employees for a great year. All employees want to feel appreciated and valued.  What better way to serve this purpose, than with an end of the year office celebration. Hosting a night out to honor your employees during a festive time of year boosts morale. And if done right, your party can jump start the new year with refreshed, productive employees.
  • End-of-year celebrations allow employees to come together outside of their own team.  The average American will spend 90,000 hours (45 years) of their life at work. Unless you have a very small office, most employees only engage in relationships within their department. When employees have a chance to mingle outside of their regular 9 to 5 day, they’ll build and cultivate relationships across different teams within the organization; creating a more loyal, cohesive and motivated culture.
  • Seasonal parties can provide employers insight on those who work for them. Spending the evening with your employees in a more casual and relaxed atmosphere may reveal talents and ideas you may not have otherwise seen during traditional work hours.


Regardless of office size, if planned right, employers can make a holiday party pop, no matter your budget. Whether this is your first go at an end-of-year celebration for your employees, or you host one every year, keep a few things in mind:

  • Plan early. Establish a steering committee to generate ideas for your holiday party. Allow the committee to involve all employees early on in the process. Utilize voting tools like Survey Monkey or Outlook to compile employee votes. This engages not only your entire workforce, but serves you as well when tailoring your party to fit your culture.
  • Create set activities. Engaging employees in some type of organized activity not only eases any social anxiety for them and their guests, it cultivates memories and allows colleagues to get to know each other.  Consider a “Casino Night”, a photo booth (or two if your company can justify to size), an escape room outing—anything that will kick the night off with ease.
  • Incorporate entertainment during the dinner. Have team leads or management members come up with fun awards that emphasize character traits, strengths, and talents others may not know of. This is a great way to create cohesiveness, build relationships, and have your employees enjoy a good laugh at dinner. 
  • Offer fun door prizes every 15 minutes or so. Prizes don’t have to be expensive to have an impact on employees, just relevant to them. However, with the right planning you may be able to throw in a raffle of larger gift items as well. Just keep in the specific tax rules when it relates to gift-giving. Gift cards associated with a specific dollar amount available to use at any establishment, and larger ticket items, can be subject to your employees having to claim income on them and pay the tax.
  • Make the dress code inclusive of everyone. Employees should not feel a financial pinch to attend a holiday office party. Establish a dress code that fits your culture, not the other way around.


According to the Society of Human Resource Management, statistics show in recent years only 65% of employers have offered holiday parties—down from 72% five years ago. Consider the following tips when hosting your next year-end celebration.

  • Keep it light.  Eliminate itineraries and board-room like structure. Choose to separate productivity/award celebrations and upcoming year projections from your holiday party. 
  • Invite spouses and significant others to attend the party.  Employees spend a majority of their week with their colleagues. Giving employees this option is a great way to show you value who they spend their time with outside of work.
  • Allow employees to leave early on a work day to give them time to get ready and pick up who is attending the party with them. 
  • Mingle.  Show how you value your employees by chatting with them and meeting their guests.
  • Provide comfortable seating areas where employees can rest, eat and talk.  Position these in main action areas so no one feels anti-social for taking a seat somewhere.
  • Consider tying in employees that work in different locations.  Have a slideshow running throughout the night on what events other office locations have done throughout the year.
  • Create low-key conversation starters and get people to chat it up.  This is valuable especially for those that are new to the company and guests of your employees. Incorporate trivia questions into the décor and table settings. Get them to engage by tying in a prize.
  • Keep the tastes and comfort level of your employees in mind. Include a variety of menu items that fit dietary restrictions.  Not all employees drink alcohol and not all employees eat meat.
  • Limit alcohol to a 2 ticket system per guest.  Opt for a cash bar after that to reduce liability.
  • Provide access to accommodations or coordinate transportation like Uber or Lyft to get your employees somewhere safely after the party if they choose to drink.

Ultimately, holiday parties can still be a value-add for your employees if done the right way. Feel free to change it up from year to year so these parties don’t get stale and continue to fit to your company’s culture. Contemplate new venues, ideas and activities and change up your steering committee to keep these parties fresh. Employees are more likely to enjoy themselves at an event that fits with their lifestyle, so don’t be afraid to get creative!


Emergency vs. Urgent – What’s the Difference in Walk-In Care?

We’ve all been there – once or twice (or more)—when a child, spouse or family member has had to gain access to healthcare quickly. Whether a fall that requires stitches; a sprained or broken bone; or something more serious, it can be difficult to identify which avenue to take when it comes to walk-in care. With the recent boom in stand-alone ERs  (Emergency Care Clinics or ECCs), as well as, Urgent Care Clinics (UCCs) it’s easy to see why almost 50% of diagnoses could have been treated for less money and time with the latter.  

It’s key to educate yourself and your employees on the difference between the two so as not to get pummeled by high medical costs.

  1. Most Emergency Care facilities are open 24 hours a day; whereas Urgent Care may be open a maximum of 12 hours, extending into late evening. Both are staffed with a physician, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, however, stand alone ECCs specialize in life-threatening conditions and injuries that require more advanced technology and highly trained medical personnel to diagnose and treat than a traditional Urgent Care clinic.
  2. Most individual ERs charge a higher price for the visit – generally 3-5 times higher than a normal Urgent Care visit would cost. The American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM) physicians’ bill at a higher rate than typical Family-Medicine trained Urgent Care physicians do (American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM). These bill rates are based on insurance CPT codes. For example, a trip to the neighborhood ER for strep throat may cost you more than a visit to a UC facility. Your co-insurance fee for a sprain or strain at the same location may cost you $150 in lieu of $40 at a traditional Urgent Care facility.  
  3. Stand alone ER facilities may often be covered under your plan, but some of the “ancillary” services (just like visit rates) may be billed higher than Urgent Care facilities. At times, this has caused many “financial sticker shock” when they first see those medical bills. The New England Journal of Medicine indicates 1 of every 5 patients experience this sticker shock. In fact, 22% of the patients who went to an ECC covered by their insurance plan later found certain ancillary services were not covered, or covered for less. These services were out-of-network, therefore charged a higher fee for the same services offered in both facilities.  

So, what can you and your employees do to make sure you don’t get duped into additional costs?

  1. Identify the difference between when you need urgent or emergency care.
  2. Know your insurance policy.  Review the definition of terms and what portion your policy covers with regard to deductibles and co-pays for each of these facilities. 
  3. Pay attention to detail. Understand key terms that define the difference between these two walk-in clinics. Most Emergency Care facilities operate as stand-alone ERs, which can further confuse patients when they need immediate care. If these centers, or their paperwork, has the word “emergency”, “emergency” or anything related to it, they’ll operate and bill like an ER with their services. Watch for clinics that offer both services in one place. Often, it’s very easy to disguise their practices as an Urgent Care facility, but again due to CPT codes and the medical boards they have the right to charge more. Read the fine print.

It’s beneficial as an employer to educate your employees on this difference, as the more they know – the lower the cost will be for the employer and employee come renewal time.

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How to Make the Most Out of Your FSA at Year-End

As 2017 comes to a close, it’s time to act on the money sitting in your Flexible Spending/Savings Account (FSA). Unlike a Health Savings Account or HSA, pre-taxed funds contributed to an FSA are lost at the end of the year if an employee doesn’t use them, and an employer doesn’t adopt a carryover policy.  It’s to your advantage to review the various ways you can make the most out of your FSA by year-end.  

Book Those Appointments

One of the first things you should do is get those remaining appointments booked for the year. Most medical/dental/vision facilities book out a couple of months in advance, so it’s key to get in now to use up those funds.

Look for FSA-Approved Everyday Health Care Products

Many drugstores will often advertise FSA-approved products in their pharmacy area, within a flyer, or on their website. These products are usually tagged as “FSA approved”. Many of these products include items that monitor health and wellness – like blood pressure and diabetic monitors – to everyday healthcare products like children’s OTC meds, bandages, contact solution, and certain personal care items. If you need to use the funds up before the end of the year, it’s time to take a trip to your local drugstore and stock up on these items.

Know What’s Considered FSA-Eligible

Over the last several years, the IRS has loosened the guidelines on what is considered eligible under a FSA as more people became concerned about losing the money they put into these plans. There are many items that are considered FSA-eligible as long as a prescription or a doctor’s note is provided or kept on file. Here are a few to consider:

1.  Acupuncture. Those who suffer from chronic neck or back pain, infertility, depression/anxiety, migraines or any other chronic illness or condition, Eastern medicine may be the way to go. Not only are treatments relatively inexpensive, but this 3,000 year old practice is recognized by the U.S. National Institute of Health and is an eligible FSA expense.

2.  Dental/Vision Procedures. Dental treatment can be expensive—think orthodontia and implants. While many employers may offer some coverage, it’s a given there will be out-of-pocket costs you’ll incur. And, eye care plans won’t cover the cost of LASIK, but your FSA will. So, if you’ve been wanting to correct your vision without the aid of glasses or contacts, or your needing to get that child braces, using those FSA funds is the way to go.

3.  Health-boosting Supplements. While you cannot just walk into any health shop and pick up performance-enhancing powder or supplements and pay with your FSA card, your doctor may approve certain supplements and alternative options if they deem it to benefit your health and well-being. A signed doctor’s note will make these an FSA-eligible expense.

4.  Smoking-cessation and Weight-Loss Programs. If your doctor approves you for one of these programs with a doctor’s note deeming it’s medically necessary to maintain your health, certain program costs can be reimbursed under an FSA.

Talk to Your HR Department

When the IRS loosened guidelines a few years ago, they also made it possible for participants to carry over $500 to the next year. Ask Human Resources if your employer offers this, or if they provide a grace period (March 15 of the following year) to turn in receipts and use up funds. Employers can only adopt one of these two policies though.

Plan for the Coming Year

Analyze the out-of-pocket expenses you incurred this year and make the necessary adjustments to allocate what you believe you’ll need for the coming year. Take advantage of the slightly higher contribution limit for 2018.  If your company offers a FSA that covers dependent care, familiarize yourself with those eligible expenses and research whether it would be to your advantage to contribute to as well.  

Flexible Spending/Saving Accounts can be a great employee benefit offering tax advantages for employees that have a high-deductible plan or use a lot of medical. As a participant, using the strategies listed above will help you make the most out of your FSA.


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IRS Issues New Guidance on Qualified Small Employer HRAs

Can you still provide benefits without a group health plan?  Yes, you can!  Small employers who need to entice the best, most qualified employees can still have an attractive benefits package without having the stress of a high-cost health plan.  Even better news?  The way to do it is tax deductible.  Learn more about the Qualified Small Employer Health Reimbursement Arrangement (QSEHRA) from our compliance bulletin.  Follow us to stay up-to-date on the rules, regulations and laws that affect small employers by connecting with us on social media and signing up for our monthly newsletter.  

Want to learn more about the association health plan we are putting together?  Let's meet and talk about that.  I'm just a phone call away.

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The New War on Drugs: Opioid Outliers Detectable in Health Plans

Opioid addiction is a growing epidemic in the United States, with opioid overdoses killing 91 Americans every day. In 2015 alone, more than 33,000 people died from an opioid overdose. Read on to learn more about opioids and to learn how to recognize the signs of opioid addiction.

Avoid Costly Mistakes with FMLA

Avoid Costly Mistakes with FMLA

Having a paid family leave policy reinforces an organization's commitment to a family-friendly culture.  More importantly, there is more competition these days for talent and with more millennials entering the workforce they are seeking family-friendly policies that will allow them to have more work/life balance. 

Custom Benefits Solutions Expands Services

Custom Benefits Solutions Expands Services

With the desperate need to control healthcare costs, employers are eager to have a solution that allows them the advantage of large numbers but the autonomy to create their own destiny.  The current constraints and opaque pricing models of the provider-payer relationship as well as “secret” PPO contracts have yielded a healthcare system that is confusing, hard to navigate and, in some situations, bankrupting to healthcare consumers. These days it takes an employee benefits consultant who understands how to think around problems before they ever really become problems.

Employers are Calling for Innovative Solutions

Employers are Calling for Innovative Solutions

Perhaps the most notable change in this movement toward self-funding is the number of smaller employers getting in the game. Although most of these are level-funded arrangements, employers see the value in gaining control of their plan with a focus on what’s important to their specific employee base. Plus, the tax advantage isn’t bad either, as state taxes are eliminated on most self-insured plans.